The Los Angeles Lakers slumped to their sixth loss in seven games with LeBron James finishing their 121-114 defeat to the Toronto Raptors injured in the locker room on Sunday.

James left the court in the fourth quarter due to a sore right ankle, the same ankle which sidelined the Lakers superstar for 20 games until his return against the Sacramento Kings on Friday.

The four-time MVP played 28 minutes, scoring 19 points with seven rebounds and six assists but he could not inspire reigning NBA champions the Lakers to reverse their worrying form ahead of the playoffs.

Toronto forward Pascal Siakam was exceptional with a season-high 39 points, 13 rebounds and four assists, while veteran guard Kyle Lowry also had a double-double with 37 points, including three three-pointers, and 11 assists.

The result means the Lakers slip to 36-28 and sixth spot in the Western Conference, while the Raptors are 27-38.

 

Giannis comes out on top against KD

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 49 points as the Milwaukee Bucks overcame the star-studded Brooklyn Nets 117-114 in their heavyweight Eastern Conference meeting. Making his return after a minor ankle issue, two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo also had eight rebounds and four assists, while Khris Middleton contributed 26 points and 11 rebounds in a key supporting role. Durant did his best to lift the Nets with 42 points and 10 rebounds.

Joel Embiid had his 14th game with 30 or more points and 10 rebounds, with only Antetokounmpo having more this season, as the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers won 113-111 in overtime against the San Antonio Spurs. MVP hopeful Embiid finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds after OT, with Seth Curry adding 22 points.

Devin Booker had 32 points to lead the high-flying Phoenix Suns to a 123-120 victory over the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder.

The New York Knicks kept up their hot run with 122-97 win against the Houston Rockets, fuelled by All-Star Julius Randle's 31 points in three quarters.

C.J. McCollum (33 points), Damian Lillard (26 points and 13 assists) and Jusuf Nurkic (14 points and 11 rebounds) combined to lead the Portland Trail Blazers past the Boston Celtics 129-119. Jayson Tatum's 33 points were not enough for the Celtics. Per Stats Perform, the Trail Blazers are the first team in NBA history to have four consecutive home losses immediately followed by four straight road victories.

 

From hero to zero

Dorian Finney-Smith nailed the game-winner for the Dallas Mavericks against the Washington Wizards on Saturday. But he was struggled in the 111-99 loss to the Sacramento Kings. Finney-Smith was one-for-seven shooting in 35 minutes, missing all five of his three-point attempts for just three points.

 

Timely tip from Simmons

Ben Simmons tipped home in the nick of time after Embiid's attempted buzzer-beating shot missed in the 76ers' win over the Spurs.

 

Sunday's results

Milwaukee Bucks 117-114 Brooklyn Nets
Portland Trail Blazers 129-119 Boston Celtics
New York Knicks 122-97 Houston Rockets
Philadelphia 76ers 113-111 San Antonio Spurs (OT)
Phoenix Suns 123-120 Oklahoma City Thunder
Sacramento Kings 111-99 Dallas Mavericks
Miami Heat 121-111 Charlotte Hornets
Toronto Raptors 121-114 Los Angeles Lakers

 

Nuggets at Lakers

The Lakers (36-28) have a big test to get back on track in the Western Conference against Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets (43-21) with playoffs seedings up for grabs.

Sergio Scariolo made sure it was business as usual for the Toronto Raptors despite the absence of six coaches – and one key player – for the victory over the Houston Rockets.

Head coach Nick Nurse and five of his assistants were unable to be involved with the team for Friday's game due to health and safety protocols amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Raptors also recently lost assistant Chris Finch – who has taken over as head coach at the Minnesota Timberwolves – from their staff, yet Scariolo smoothly stepped up to take on the lead role, despite receiving little notice about his unexpected promotion.

Nurse had a video call with his temporary replacement prior to the game, with Toronto going on to triumph 122-111 to move to 17-17 for the season.

"It was different, because everything happened so fast. We had to re-adjust tasks, timing, schedule, so we had to go a little bit on the fly," Scariolo explained to the media after the game.

"But the players did a great job, and the remaining coaches – the few guys left – were great. The guys who were not with us tonight did a great job also, in terms of the game preparation.

"Coach Nurse was always there – we had a Zoom call before the game. This is teamwork, basically. There is a guy who stays on the sidelines who makes so decisions, but within coach Nurse's philosophy this has always been about teamwork, about a group, so I felt pretty comfortable."

The Raptors - who are playing their home games this season in Florida due to travel restrictions in place during the global pandemic, were also without Pascal Siakam due to NBA protocols.

However, 30 points from Norm Powell and 25 and 20 respectively from backcourt duo Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry saw them overcome the Rockets.

It helped that Scariolo knows all about the responsibilities of taking charge, too. As well as working for the Raptors, the Italian is also the head coach of the Spanish national team, leading them to a silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012, followed four years later by bronze in Rio.

Having only just returned from international duty with Spain, the 59-year-old went through a period of quarantine before joining up again with the Raptors - a unique set of circumstances that allowed him to be available to cover for absent colleagues.

"I think this is a subject for a book, rather than an answer!" Scariolo told the media.

"I came back on Monday and was tested immediately after the trip from Poland, we had played there, played two games. Fortunately we won both, so it was worth the effort to go back and forth.

"I quarantined and got tested every day, then travelled to Miami by car by myself. I stayed totally separated from the coaches and the players. Then yesterday we had this situation coming out.

"I was working on preparing for this game as normal, then suddenly at night I got a few texts and realised things were going to change."

It was never going to be easy for the Toronto Raptors, not when you are living out of hotels and temporary residences more than 2,000 miles from your home city. Not when you dwell in by far the most top-heavy division in the Eastern Conference.

Still, the way the 2018-19 NBA champions have performed more like a bottom-feeding also-ran than a presumed title contender during the nascent stages of a challenging 2020-21 season is at least a cause for concern. And the difficult circumstances the Raptors find themselves under, playing their home games in Tampa, Florida, after being forced southward by travel restrictions by the Canadian government, does not reasonably explain all their early problems. 

It is not the sole reason Toronto has been among the league's most inept scoring teams thus far, ranking 26th in offensive rating and dead last in field goal percentage. It is not why the Raptors have been routinely steamrolled in the second half of games during their 1-6 start (their sixth loss of last season did not come until their 21st game, by the way).

No, there's a bit more to it than that. And while it is certainly not time to press the panic button just yet, there are a few areas the Raptors clearly need to improve on if they are to at least extend their current seven-year streak of playoff appearances. 

THE SHOTS ARE NOT FALLING, ESPECIALLY FROM LONG DISTANCE 

The 3-point shot has always been a big part of the Raptors' game since Nick Nurse took over as head coach, as they ranked sixth in the NBA in 3-point rate (the ratio of 3-pointers attempted to total field goal attempts) last season and 10th during their 2018-19 championship campaign. So far in 2020-21, nearly half (49.2 per cent) of Toronto's shots have come from behind the arc – the highest total in the league. 

The difference is this Raptors are not hitting those shots at nearly the same proficiency as before. Toronto's 34.2 success rate ranks 24th in the league. The Raptors finished no lower than sixth in either of the past two seasons. 

In 2019-20, the Raptors had six players with at least three 3-point attempts per game shoot 38 percent or better from long range, tied with Detroit for the most in the NBA. Only three current players (Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, Matt Thomas) can make that claim so far this season. 

Two players who accomplished that feat in 2019-20, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, have moved on. Aron Baynes, a 35 percent 3-point shooter over the past two seasons, was signed with the intent to fill the void, but he is 3-of-16 on triple attempts thus far. Holdover OG Anunoby, just weeks removed from signing a four-year, $72million extension, is 12-of-41 (29.3 percent) after hitting at a 39 percent clip in 2019-20. 

WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, PASCAL SIAKAM? 

Siakam's well-documented struggles in Toronto's seven-game loss to Boston in last season's Eastern Conference semi-finals may not have been a blip on the radar.

The Celtics masterfully neutralised the forward by deploying the smaller Jaylen Brown as his primary defender, and teams have been successfully following that blueprint during the early stages of this season. 

The plan is working so far, too. Often drawing defenders with the length and athleticism to give him problems (Philadelphia's Ben Simmons and San Antonio's Rudy Gay were particularly effective), Siakam is simply not getting to the rim with the same frequency as past years, and (see below) has been among the least efficient players of his size when doing so.

LOWEST FG PERCENTAGE AT THE RIM – PLAYERS 6'9" OR TALLER - IN 2020-21 SEASON (minimum 100 minutes played) 

Isaiah Stewart, Det .478 
Pascal Siakam, Tor .488 
LaMarcus Aldridge, SA .500 
Brook Lopez, Mil .500 
Jusuf Nurkic, Por .500 
Dwight Powell, Dal .500 

The Raptors have been outscored by an astonishing 63 points with Siakam on the court, an average of 10.5 per game that is eclipsed only by a pair of players from the likely lottery bound Timberwolves (D'Angelo Russell, Ed Davis) for the worst mark in the league. 

It has been a humbling start for the 2018-19 NBA Most Improved Player, and that frustration was no more evident than when he bolted straight to the locker room after fouling out late in a loss to the 76ers. Nurse benched him for the next game, which happens to be the only one the Raptors have won so far.

Siakam did look more like his old self in Wednesday's outing at Phoenix, when he put up 32 points and shot over 50 percent from the field for the first time this season. It goes without saying the Raptors need him to return to his All-Star form, as they were 19-1 when he scored 25 or more points in a game in 2019-20. 

LEADS ARE SLIPPING AWAY 

Six teams have lost multiple times when holding a double-digit lead in a game so far. The Rockets, Hawks, Wizards and Pistons have done so twice, the Grizzlies three times. The Raptors have five such losses through their first seven outings.

Starting well hasn't been a problem - Toronto is outscoring opponents by an average of 4.3 points in the first quarter, the second-best mark in the NBA behind only Milwaukee. Starting the second half well has been a real issue, however. The Raptors have been outscored by an average of 5.4 points in the third quarter, with only the Timberwolves and Cavaliers having been worse.

In contrast, the Raptors outscored foes by 4.3 points per game in the third quarter (fourth-best in the NBA) while going 53-19 last season. They ranked second in the league during their 2018-19 title run.  

So what's the reason for the dramatic drop-off? Is it because Toronto fields one of the league's older rosters? The Raptors are one of only three teams with two starters (Baynes and Kyle Lowry) aged 34 or older. One of the others is the Lakers, however, so there goes that theory. 

A lack of depth is the more plausible answer. The Raptors rank 27th in the NBA in bench scoring, though they also had one of the league's least productive second units last season. That was less of an issue in 2019-20 because the starting five was often so good. With Siakam, Anunoby and Baynes all underperforming thus far, it has quickly become a more pressing concern. 

THE BOTTOM LINE 

There's no cause for alarm yet for Toronto fans just yet regarding their snowbird team. If not for a few bad stretches, the Raptors could just as easily be 5-2 instead of 1-6, and a defense that is still among the NBA's better units has kept them in every game in spite of their inefficiencies on the other end. 

There is enough of a track record throughout the roster to suggest that the offense will come around. It needs to as well for a team that has been built on the premise of winning now and whose window may be closing soon.

Lowry, the Raptors' unquestioned heart and soul, is in the final year of his contract and turns 35 in March. Does team president Masai Ujiri consider moving him at the trade deadline if Toronto finds itself fighting for merely a playoff spot instead of a division title? 

The next two months should be very intriguing in Toronto. And Tampa as well.  

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